SYDNEY, N.S. – A soldier who shot his close friend dead in Afghanistan during “horseplay” with firearms violated the trust of his colleagues, a military judge said Wednesday before dismissing Matthew Wilcox from the military and sentencing him to four years in prison.
Cmdr. Peter Lamont said Wilcox’s carelessness had a fatal result for Cpl. Kevin Megeney, who died on an operating table after his tentmate fired a bullet through his chest on March 6, 2007.
“His critical carelessness has had tragic consequences,” Lamont said Wednesday.
The sentencing of Wilcox is the most serious for courts martial that have been completed for incidents that have occurred in Afghanistan.
In explaining his decision, Lamont indicated the conduct of the offender was part of a pattern of negligence that began with his failure to unload his firearm after he finished his shift guarding the main gate at the Kandahar military base.
“He violated (the) trust of his colleagues,” Lamont said Wednesday.
“He was highly trained … and in this period he wilfully ignored instructions.”
The 24-year-old former corporal from Glace Bay, N.S., was convicted in July of criminal negligence causing death and neglect of duty in the shooting death of his tentmate at Kandahar Airfield after a nine-week trial attended by relatives from both families.
After the judge ruled that Wilcox was to begin serving his sentence immediately, Karen Megeney, the victim’s mother, made a statement on behalf of her family indicating they were satisfied with the decision.
“Over the last 30 months we have waited for the details of what happened that day, and we are now prepared to close this chapter and move forward,” she said.
“Although there is no good outcome to this process, we are satisfied that military justice has been done.”
Lamont said he was obliged to give Wilcox the minimum sentence in the civilian Criminal Code of four years.
“In this case, I’m unable to say how the offence can be considered any less grave for sentencing purposes just because it has occurred overseas.”
Wilcox’s sister, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, wept as the young soldier was sentenced.
Michel Drapeau, a former colonel in the Armed Forces and a defence lawyer for military cases, said the ruling was harsh.
“I find the sentence severe,” Drapeau said in an interview from Ottawa.
“While he will have to serve the imprisonment, when he comes out and for the rest of his life he will have to live with the stigma of dismissal.”
Drapeau said he hopes that the Canadian Forces will carefully examine its training policies to see if more senior officers are doing a good enough job cracking down on misuse of firearms.
“Will the Canadian Forces take the occasion of this loss to make a critical self-examination of the recruiting, the discipline and the training in the forces?” he asked.
Defence and Crown lawyers say this is the first manslaughter charge to be considered by a military jury where one Canadian soldier was accused of killing another during the Afghanistan conflict.
There was one other similar case, but it never went to trial.
In October 2008, a military judge adjourned court martial proceedings against Master Cpl. Robbie Fraser, who had faced manslaughter charges after a gun allegedly discharged in a military vehicle outside Kandahar, killing Master Cpl. Jeffrey Walsh of Regina.
When he took the stand in his own defence earlier this year, Wilcox testified he believed somebody was cocking a gun at his back and he’d whirled around and shot without looking to see who it was.
Lamont said during his decision Wednesday that he didn’t accept that explanation.
Rather, Lamont said he believed evidence from soldiers who testified that Wilcox had informed them he was playing a game of quick draw – a game where soldiers attempt to pull their Browning pistols out of their holsters more quickly than their comrades.
“I’m satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the shot that killed Cpl. Megeney was accidentally discharged in a case of horseplay with guns,” said Lamont.
Wilcox stood showing no emotion on his face as Lamont read him his sentence.
About half an hour later, Wilcox was escorted briskly from the building by a military police officer and a kilted member of his Nova Scotia Highlanders unit. The police officer held his arm, and Wilcox removed his beret and held it by his side as he was marched in front of television cameras.
At the end of the day, Lamont also ruled that Wilcox would have to start serving his sentence immediately, denying a defence application seeking the soldier’s release until an appeal process is completed.
His defence lawyer, Maj. Steve Turner, said that the soldier would stay in Sydney on Wednesday and then be taken to Halifax.
Crown lawyer Maj. Jason Samson said he expected that Wilcox would be sent to the military prison in Edmonton and spend approximately 30 days there before being transferred to a civilian penitentiary.
From the moment he was sentenced, Wilcox was no longer a corporal in the army, Lamont said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Lamont did note that Wilcox is young, had no previous record and had been praised by his commanding officer for adequately performing his military duties since his return to Canada.
He also acknowledged Wilcox’s grief since Megeney’s death.
“There is no doubt he has suffered enormously from the loss of his platoon mate,” Lamont said.
Crown lawyers had recommended that Wilcox be sentenced to six years in prison, nine months of which would be served at the Canadian Forces Service Prison in Edmonton.
The defence had called for a one-year suspended sentence and demotion, not dismissal from the military.